One month after starting law school, a young woman asked me: “If I’m fired because I’m gay, what can I do?”
The woman, an undergraduate, met me at a conference for queer student groups. She heard me talking about coming out in law school, and during a lunch break, she sat next to me and asked this question with a mix of curiosity and concern.
I answered by saying that I could not give her legal advice because I was only a student, but hypothetically, the response to her question of what a queer employee could do was, well, not much.
I explained, as much as I could, about federal employment protections, interpretations of Title VII and Title IX by the courts, and the change in policy from the Obama to the Trump administration. I laid out the language of Mississippi’s HB 1523, the country’s harshest “religious freedom” law that declares open season on LGBT employees, customers, and families.
When I finished, the woman didn’t look pleased—nothing I had to say was uplifting or reassuring. But that wasn’t all. She turned back to her lunch, and the concern and anxiety over talking to me had disappeared. The program resumed, and I noticed her asking more questions of the speakers—armed with the new knowledge I had shared with her.
I couldn’t give her the answer she wanted, but I gave her the answer she needed. That was my first time feeling like I could someday be an actual lawyer. I still treasure the quick conversation precisely because it offered me this realization.
I looked forward to the rest of law school with new vigor, imagining the conversations I would have with other LGBT legal professionals about the ambiguous place LGBT people have in the law. After finishing my first semester, I’m still waiting to have those conversations.
As a native Southerner and a Mississippi law student, I am shocked that, despite the desperate need for new LGBT legislation, there are hardly any openly LGBT lawyers or legal professionals. While there are more LGBT lawyers than ever, 56% of LGBT lawyers work in only four cities: New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
That’s little comfort to the 35% of American LGBT people who live in the South, who, according to the Williams Institute, are more likely to lack employment protections and insurance for themselves and their families. Southern LGBT folks make less money and are more likely to be food insecure. Southern queer men have among the highest new HIV infection rates in the country.
Despite all of this, queer Southerners raise children at a rate higher than more liberal states. Almost half of the LGBT population in Mississippi—about 44%—are parents. Considering all that Southern LGBT people face, does it really make sense that the majority of legal professionals that could most identify with their struggles isolate themselves to just four metropolises along the coasts?
I have written about the need for queer Southerners to return to the South, which deeply connects to my personal heritage as a Southerner. Now, as I embark on a new career, I am writing to LGBT lawyers: Go to where the fight is.
While several organizations in the fields of law and LGBT rights have made significant strides in the South, it’s up to individual queer professionals to start taking their craft and their talents to the communities that need them the most. No matter your practice area—family law to corporate taxation and everything in between—having an openly queer legal authority in these underserved areas promotes curiosity about LGBT issues and offers disenfranchised queer people the chance to learn just how the law helps and hurts them.
For every student wondering about her employment rights, there is a lesbian couple fighting to adopt, a transgender man trying to change his sex on his driver’s license, or a gay man untangling his finances after he and his partner declare bankruptcy. These clients deserve help, but they deserve our help, as queer professionals, most of all.